Circa 2009: The world economy had not started showing signs of recovery after the Great Recession. Even as most global businesses languished in distress, making capital expenditure a dream, there was a silver lining that nobody noticed. The world was gradually waking up to the power of automation across industries. Even in such a bleak economic scenario, the global sales of robotic automation solutions showed an upward trajectory in 2009, an International Federation of Robotics study suggests, and has grown a whopping 400% since.
Robotics has redefined industries such as manufacturing, e-commerce, logistics, retail, healthcare, hospitality, etc, to grow in scale, optimise costs, increase accuracy and enhance the overall experience for the end user. For example, only about 1,000 robot-assisted surgeries were performed around the world in 2000. The number had dramatically gone up to 570,000 in 2014 and is expected to have crossed the two-million mark by 2015. High-precision procedures during a surgery can be handled by robots (under human supervision) to increase the chances of success. Similarly, when you go to Japan, do check out the Henn-na Hotel in a Dutch-themed amusement park in Nagasaki. The hotel is completely staffed by multilingual robots that can process language to understand the orders and requirements of its guests.
Gartner forecasts that the next decade will see virtually every application and service incorporate some level of artificial intelligence and machine learning, giving rise to a spectrum of intelligent implementations.
Robotics can transform industries by automating operations that are complex, repetitive, tiresome or hazardous. Given the benefits, the question for several industries is no longer about whether or not to implement robotics, but when and how to do it?
While other industries prepare to reap the benefits that robotics brings, the robotics industry itself is facing the challenge to find and hire the right talent. The skills gap in this industry is hampering not just its own growth, but also of the other industries that can be transformed by robotics deployment.
The latest National Employability Report based on 150,000 students across 650 engineering colleges by Aspiring Minds, the employability assessment & certification firm, says over 80% engineers in India are unemployable, a trend that has not shown any improvement in the past five years. The issue is even more serious for the robotics industry, given the complexity of its operations.
Of late, robotics courses have made their way into college curriculum. Premier institutions like the IITs, NITs, BITS Pilani, IISc and others offer short-term courses, workshops and competitions focused on robotics. But despite the growing popularity of these courses, not many institutions are producing professionals who are job ready.
One of the primary reasons for this skills gap is the multidisciplinary approach required for a robotics professional, something that most of these courses have not been able to offer so far. The best way to learn robotics is to work on live projects that involve an amalgamation of software, mechanical, electronics and firmware engineering. Team AcYut at BITS Pilani and Technology Robotix Society at IIT Kharagpur have been enabling their students to gain this much required experience. AcYut is developing a series of indigenous and autonomous robotic platforms. Technology Robotix Society, on the other hand, has started unique ventures to explore opportunities in unmanned swarm robotics and aerial vehicles. More such opportunities for students are the need of the hour. Tier 2 and 3 engineering colleges need to follow a similar approach too.
Instead of restricting themselves to a single discipline, engineering students need to acquire multidisciplinary skills, right from the start. They have to understand how hardware and software go hand-in-hand in creating disruptive robotic solutions. India is not the only country lagging behind in this exposure. Even the US and Germany have been struggling due to the lack of an evolved ecosystem. Students need to actively look for opportunities to work on robotics projects that solve complex, real-world problems. This can be done by experimenting with the given resources and participating in robotics competitions, workshops and seminars. The most important thing to have, however, is a burning passion for robotics.
Collaboration is crucial. Engineering institutes and robotics industry need to initiate opportunities such as running labs and projects on robotics, and companies can provide students with relevant opportunities through internships or short-term projects. This will not only help companies identify and recruit the right talent for the long term, but also prepare them for solving the industry’s problems through automation.
Robotics and hardware companies must participate in the placement process, preferably at the start of the season, along with software companies. This is important to make sure that mechanical and electronics students do not end up being placed with software companies. Hence, a balanced proportion of hardware and software companies needs to be a part of the placement process.
Robotics needs to be seen as an amalgamation of software and hardware. We have a long way to go before we realise this vision. For instance, e-commerce is still largely seen as an industry requiring software technology, even though robotics and automation are no longer a choice but an imperative for e-commerce warehouses—they need hardware technology for their supply chain in the backend. Hence, artificial intelligence, machine learning and swarm robotics need to move beyond software. Only when software and hardware come together can the true potential of the robotics industry be realised.
The author is vice-president, People Operations, GreyOrange, a robotics company that designs, develops and deploys automation solutions